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Start-up Advice

5 Startup Lessons That Could Have Saved Me 5 Years

Want to overcome some of the hurdles of starting a business? These tips will help you reach the finish line faster.




Starting a business is tough. Everyone knows this. And, I’ve learnt it the hard way. I’ve built a fair number of products and even successfully brought five of them to market. “Five products” might sound like a lot at first, but it’s actually nothing compared to the number of products and ideas I’ve dismissed. Dismissing bad or even “good” ideas is one of the best things you can do as an entrepreneur because the “good” ideas always steal from the best ideas. Start with absolutely the best idea you can.

So, how do you know if you have the right idea or just a “good” one? With these five lessons, I’ll show you how I learned to see the difference. If I had known and truly understood these lessons from the very beginning, it would have given me five more years to work on my best idea.

1. Embrace the problem.

I often find myself saying sentences starting with: “I would like to do . . .” This sounds harmless at first, but is actually pretty dangerous because it’s solution-centric. A better way to start a sentence would be: “Isn’t it ridiculous that people are still dealing with X problem in 2017?” That’s problem-centric and has a lot of advantages.

I look at the current AI trend and, as someone that has a lot of experience in this field, I get really excited. People are attempting to work AI into virtually everything, but it would be better to find the few big problems where AI can remove a real pain for people. When I look closely at it, I sometimes find that I could solve a problem and serve customers better without any AI at all.

Related: How To Make Sure You Don’t Give Up On Your Road To Entrepreneurial Success

The best ideas often come when you’re looking to solve a problem you’ve had yourself. It’s how many great companies got started: Airbnb started when a guy slept on the founders air mattress during a conference. Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted a better way to search the internet. Kevin Systrom just wanted to make it easy to create and share beautiful pictures (hello, Instagram).

The main difference between these companies and the AI trend is that they were problem-focused from the beginning. If you are following a trend like AI, wearables, IoT etc., you’re probably focusing too much on the solution and not enough on the problem. While it may be great to be able to have a conversation with your refrigerator, do you need to? I’m pretty sure a shopping list taped to the front of it would probably be easier, because who doesn’t have a pen and paper?

As tempting (and adorable) as it may be, creating an app that filters different puppy breeds over your selfies isn’t going to pay the bills. It may go viral for a while, but in the end it’ll likely not have staying power. Plus, Snapchat could erase your market in a heartbeat. There are thousands of apps and websites that fulfil humanity’s seemingly inherent need for cuteness, for fun or for vanity. But, rarely are they the kind of tool that becomes a necessary part of people’s daily lives.

2. Embrace competition.

I can remember my first time finding a competitor. I was three months into a new project and was browsing the web on a late winter’s evening. And, there it was: The exact same idea, the same solution, but years ahead of me. I was shocked. I couldn’t sleep that night. “How can I possibly get ahead? Or should I quit immediately?”

Fast forward: Today, I not only accept the fact that there is always competition, but also know it’s a good sign when there is (and a big red flag when there isn’t). Even more so: I embrace it. I (try to) start to fall in love with the solutions of my competitors. After all, we are working on the same problem, and they are usually passionate about solving it, too! Having competition proves that there’s a market for your idea. You just need to be better than the existing products on the market. When I started thinking about our latest product, Zenkit, we created a list of over 200 competing products. We learned both the good and the bad things from them.

Whenever I talk to other people in the startup community, I ask, “Why do you think it will make money?” The answer is usually some variation of “Because no one else is doing it!” I’ve heard this many times over my 25-plus years in the business. While I would love to believe that brand new ideas that no one has thought of will continue to come our way, I don’t think that’s usually the case. If no one else is doing it, it means one of two things: Either the guy I’m talking to doesn’t have a complete view of the market, or there isn’t a market in the first place. Google wasn’t the first, Amazon wasn’t the first, and neither was Facebook. They each took an idea and made it better. Good artists copy, and great artists steal ideas.

What happened to that first project I mentioned, you may ask? In that particular case, I quit a week later. Today, I know why: I was in love with the solution and not the problem (see lesson 1).

Related: 5 Ways To Validate A Business Idea, Right Now

3. Tell people about it.

I mentor a lot of startups in my local community here in southern Germany. I can almost instantly tell a founder’s personal process by how open they are in talking about their projects.

If they’re talking about NDAs, I know they need more time. I don’t want to pry into all the inner workings of what they’re trying to do, but I need to understand enough to give usable advice. This is really important. Many entrepreneurs think that they need to keep their idea a secret to keep people from stealing it. So I always ask what the problem is that they’re trying to fix and explain that to me instead. Unfortunately, often times I realize that they don’t have a clue about the problem (see lesson 1) or the competition (see lesson 2).

Most ideas have already been thought of, and probably even attempted. The reason you need to tell people about your idea is because you need to validate your idea and make sure it alleviates a real pain for people.

Feedback is absolutely key. It’s all well and good to think that you can develop a product under the radar, and on some magical date in the future, go public and take over the world. The problem is that you’ll have no feedback on whether your final product actually fixes the problem you’re trying to fix. And, you can’t know that until enough people have seen it and told you how, or even if, it helped them. So get your idea out there, get as many people as you can to test it and don’t waste time worrying that someone will copy you. If they do, then they’re further validating your concept — now you just need to work hard to make the best version! Out-performing and executing will almost always win over the first mover in a space.

4. Listen to your customers.

Customers show you the pain and the problem that you’ll need to solve. When I built our first product, Chilibase, it was loved by the press. Everyone was telling me how great it was. I felt great about it, too. Chilibase was built as the first social graph for emails. However, in talking with our customers about it, I got the same feedback nearly every time: “Chilibase is cool, but what I really need is a good way to search through my emails!”

Since Chilibase couldn’t do that, it inspired me to develop Lookeen. Our customers were telling me where it hurt, and it wasn’t where I originally thought it was. At the end of the day, Chilibase was nice to have, but what our customers really needed was a search tool.

The search tool that we built has been successful specifically because we listened to our customers. If you don’t, not only will you miss opportunities, but you might do something much worse: Build a solution without a problem.

Related: 5 Common Legal Mistakes Start-Ups Make – And How To Avoid Them

5. It gets easier. And it’s worth it.

Using the first four idea filters above, I’m able to zero in on an idea that I’m passionate about, that solves a real problem for people and that has a good chance of making money.

Being passionate about the problem will help you weather the tough times. Starting a business is never easy and there are often hundreds of obstacles, big and small, that you face all the time. Passion not only helps you enjoy the good times, but it encourages you to see the obstacles as opportunities — to learn from your mistakes, accept criticism and maybe change your path when needs be. When you’re able to work through the challenges your business throws at you, the success you gain later on is even sweeter.

This focus on real world issues also helps you stay motivated when facing the tough realities of starting a business. Remember, a single piece of positive feedback from a user can keep you from giving it all up for an easier path. Knowing that you’re making a difference to not just your own life, but potentially the lives of many, is an extremely powerful motivator.

Lastly, finding that pain point and creating the cure will allow you to be more successful. If you’re able to build something that people not only want, but need to use, it will make your push into the market that much easier.

This article was originally posted here on

Martin Welker is the founder and CEO of collaboration platform Zenkit. After finishing his studies in computer science at KIT in Germany, he established Axonic, where he created one of the leading AI-driven engines for document analysis. In 2007, Axonic published Lookeen, an email search solution. Since then, Axonic has developed six products and serves over five million people worldwide.

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Start-up Advice

Selling To A Corporate: The B2B Battlefield

If you can apply some of these, you may be able to stop your hair from going grey or halt that premature baldness more effectively than me.

Jordan Stephanou




So you’re running a start-up that targets corporate clients. All you need is a few corporate signatures on that paper, and all of a sudden you’ll have a sky-rocketing business with an exciting guaranteed revenue stream every month, right? Right… But it’s not quite that easy.

Maybe you decided against a B2C (Business to Consumer model) because the marketing spend to win over one consumer at a time was not worth it, or that the South African consumer market is not big enough in your industry, or that it’s better to get 10 paying corporates rather than a million paying individuals. You’re not alone, and you’re not wrong.

Both models have their major pros and their major cons. Trust me, I know. But here are some of the learnings I’ve had by pursuing the B2B model.

The pitch: Anything other than a resounding ‘yes’ is likely a ‘no’

First step is to get the pitch. There is a huge temptation to go about it as passively as possible, hoping that the deal will fall in your lap with a well written email. Reality is a little different however. To secure most pitches, a combination (or all) of in-person approach, phone call, linked-in message and email could be required. Once you’ve secured the pitch, book it in both parties’ calendars and hope that there’s no last minute cancellation. The exciting part awaits.

Related: Beauty Of Failure: The Art Of Embracing Rejection

The sad fact of human nature is that people don’t always say what they mean, or mean what they say. Possibly it’s because we don’t like to hurt each other, or it’s because we avoid uncomfortable discussion as if it’s the plague.

Whatever the reason, it’s quite rare to receive “hard no’s”. The reality is that after a pitch, anything other than a resounding yes, or a “when can we start”, or “where can I sign?”, is likely to be a soft no; they have no interest in doing business with you. The entrepreneurial spirit is one that looks at the positive in everything, so it could be very dangerous for a glass half-full entrepreneur to receive a soft no, because this person will very much believe the deal is still alive.

Once again, trust me, I know. I recommend tempering the enthusiasm by looking out for any sign of an excuse during the pitch, and addressing it then and there. You know how hard you worked to get that meeting – so make sure you leave with no question unanswered, knowing that you did everything you could to win that business, or learnt everything you could to enhance your product, service or pitch to win future business. If you don’t get their business, it just means you didn’t get their business right now. Extract the positives and move forward.

1. Balance patience & momentum: They don’t operate like start-ups

It’s often said that a corporate is the most important thing to a startup, but a startup is far from the most important thing to a corporate.

As start-ups or SMMEs, we just have to accept that. Where we would respond to an email in a heartbeat, it may take our corporate contact 2 weeks to respond; especially if they are decision-maker. They don’t need our business, but we need theirs. As such, it’s important to remember when following up on a successful pitch that they are big, they are busy, and they have multiple balls being juggled at once. It’s likely that our proposition is the least important to them, and may be seen as a luxury.

Remember, they didn’t pursue you, you pursued them. So we have to be patient. But this is the difficult part; we have to balance patience with the desire to keep momentum. It’s an oft-said phrase that “time kills deals”. As start-ups, we need to be respectful that our prospective client is busy, but also very direct and honest with them in terms of our position and our goals and objectives.

If we are direct about when we want to conclude a deal and why, it could scare them away, or it could lead to them prioritising the deal as a priority. Either way, it’s better to know where you stand rather than have something drag on in that mythical pipeline for months or years as false hope.

2. Their emails are not their priority

emailsAfter the pitch, it’s easy to get in an unhealthy pattern. That pattern could look something like this: Send follow up documents directly after the pitch; hear nothing back from the prospective client; send a follow-up email the following week; hear nothing back; send another follow-up email the following week; hear nothing back; send another follow-up email the following week etc. into perpetuity until you go crazy and re-apply for your old job.

I have learnt that busy decision-makers in the corporate environment don’t just sit at their desk all day reading and responding to emails. They’re on the move, in important meeting after important meeting, flying to London followed by a quick trip to Doha and then 10 days in New York. They’re not setting the wheels in motion in response to your proposal in that spare 30 minutes in the airport.

Related: 4 Social Media Tips For B2Bs

As such, when they are available, you need their full attention and you need to get them to commit to the next step. Either a phone call or in-person visit is effective with this. Getting through to them and asking them the difficult questions about the next step is the only way to be top of mind, and to find out if they are serious about this deal or not.

From my learnings, I recommend emails as secondary to the phone call as a way of confirming what was discussed over the phone in terms of next steps.

3. Improve the product / service – become irresistible

With all else said, there is only one way to consistently increase chances of getting a deal over the line. That is, simply, have an incredible product or service that solves a real problem. If you have pitch after pitch where the response is luke-warm, you should ask them before leaving “what would this product have to do / look like for you to sign up right now?”.

Once you’ve had a few meetings like this, you will understand exactly what your market needs. If you build that product or service that the market craves, you’ll be turning away clients because the demand for your business will be so high. Become indispensable. Build something so good that your clients would be crazy to say no to.

4. Build a pipeline

Your business should never rely on one client saying yes. Putting too much emphasis on one deal will make you desperate, and desperation is the easiest way to scare someone away – relationship, business or anything else. Your market should be big enough that a rejection here and there is water under the bridge and simply a learning.

Closing one deal will provide a proof of concept and credibility that can be leveraged to close the next deal. Each subsequent client should, in theory, be easier to win than the previous one.

Finally, if the product or service is constantly being enhanced according to the market’s needs, if there are enough clients in the pipeline, and if the follow-ups after a great pitch are being done effectively, deals should go through systematically. At the end of the day, closing a deal shouldn’t feel like hard work. The best way to win business is by building a great business that solves real problems.

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Start-up Advice

How to Name (Or In Some Cases, Rename) Your Company

Naming a company is hard, and founders often get it wrong.

Jason Feifer




Jennifer Fitzgerald is co-founder and CEO of Policygenius. But in 2013, when her company was starting out, it had a different name: KnowItOwl.

“We thought it was a clever play on the term know-it-all,” she says. The company helps consumers find the right insurance policy for them, so she wanted a name that suggested wisdom and guidance, with a friendly animal like the GEICO gecko.

“Then we started talking to investors, engaging our first users and talking to vendors and insurance company partners, and we just kept having to repeat the name — spell it, explain it. Pretty soon we were like, We’ve got a problem.”

And it’s not an uncommon problem.

A name is one of the biggest early decisions a company founder will make, and many get it wrong. Best Buy was first called Sound of Music. Nike was Blue Ribbon Sports. Google was BackRub. Each was a mistake in some form — too narrow, too generic, too evocative of the wrong thing. (BackRub?) For Know­ItOwl, the problem was being too clever.

Related: The Do’s And Don’ts Of Naming Your Business (Infographic)

So how should a company pick a name? Fitzgerald did some research and came up with this process.

Step 1: The big name dump

Fitzgerald created a shared Google Doc for her five-person team and over the course of a few weeks sent out prompts to focus people’s creativity — asking for portmanteaus (like Microsoft, the merging of microcomputer and software), names with numbers (like Lot18), themes like references to trees and more.

Step 2: Structure brainstorming

One Saturday, she invited friends in the branding and marketing industry to join her team for pizza, beer and what she calls “structured group brainstorming.”

She’d put up a word that related to her business — say, protection. Everyone in the room had 10 minutes to write down 10 protection-related names.

Related: What You Need To Know About Naming A Start-up

Then they’d pass their list to the person to their left and take seven minutes to create seven names inspired by the other person’s list. They repeated this a few times.

Step 3: Cut the crap

Between the Google Doc and the brainstorming, they had hundreds of names and started eliminating them in phases.

First: “Can you imagine saying your company name to a Wall Street Journal reporter?” That wiped out many. (Bye, “Harmadillo”!)

Then they nixed any similar to competitors’, names that could come off as unintentionally wrong (a classic of the form: Pen Island) and names they couldn’t get a dot-com domain for.

Step 4: Judge by colour

The surviving names were evaluated based on various criteria, including brevity (shorter is better), evocativeness (does it convey meaning?) and searchability (is it unique enough that when searched for, it won’t get lost?).

Related: Checking the Availability of a Company Name with CIPC

Each criterion was marked as red, yellow or green. The name Policygenius, say, got a yellow for brevity. Too many reds meant elimination.

Step 5: Test people’s memories

Will people remember a name? Can they spell it, if they hear it? To test this, the team recorded someone saying the finalist names, posted the audio to Soundcloud, and embedded it in surveys that they paid $2,000 to have sent to 1,000 people.

They also asked respondents to write down any emotional associations the names created z- “just to make sure nothing was offensive or conjuring up any emotions we didn’t want to conjure up,” she says.

After this, Policygenius had its name. It now employs 130 people and helps a million people each month find insurance, either through its service or content — success that (ahem) owl started with a great name.

This article was originally posted here on

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Start-up Advice

How To Develop A Unique Brand Name In A Global Marketplace And Protect It

A helpful How-to-Guide on developing a unique brand name and conducting trademark searches.

Julian Diaz




As a marketer, I know just how important it is to choose the right name for a company or product. It needs to be easy to spell and pronounce (in various languages if you’re going international). If possible, it should have some positive connotations (definitely no negative ones) that can be associated to your company or product. And above all, it must be distinctive and unique.

The question is how do you work out what is unique, beyond a URL search, and then how to protect it? The answer is trademarks. I know what you are going to say…

Do I really need to worry about trademarks?

Yes, for two reasons.

  1. You might be a small business already trading under a name that already exists in the market. And maybe the other company that has trademarked that name in your industry classification won’t ever issue you with a cease and desist letter when you enter their market, because they are nice people and just don’t feel there’s any harm in letting a company by the same name trade in their market. Or maybe they do. It’s a decision that is totally out of your control. Do you really want to take that chance as you build a global brand?
  2. You’ve invested tonnes of money into building your brand in your market and then all of a sudden another company enters the market with the same name. Trademarking your name protects your brand from being copied or from another company riding the wave of your brand awareness you’ve invested so much into building.

Trademarks are important if you want to build a brand on a solid foundation and protect it in the long-term.

Related: When do I register a trademark?

How hard is it to successfully trademark a name?

According to the US Patent & Trademark Office, there have been 182,000 trademark registrations and 312 000 applications in the past 5 months alone. That’s more words than there are entries for in the Oxford Dictionary!

You can imagine how hard it is, and how much harder it gets with each passing month, to dream up a name for your product or company that is unique and distinctive enough that it can be successfully trademarked and protected in large markets like the US or Europe – especially in the technology industry. But there are a couple of routes you can try when developing a new name if you find your chosen one is already trademarked.

How to come up with a unique company name

When coming up with a company or product name, you can either go with:

  • an acronym (IBM, SAP),
  • a family or person’s name (Ford, Dell)
  • an existing word (Amazon, Apple, Salesforce)
  • a misspelled word that looks or sounds like an existing word (Xero, Google), or
  • a completely new word either made up of a combination of existing words (PayPal, Instagram, Accenture), or
  • a completely new word entirely made up (Skype).

Related: (Infographic)Top 10 Reasons To Rebrand Your Business

How to make sure it’s available

Try Google first. If you don’t get any companies coming up that are using that word as a name in your industry, you’re off to a good start. Keep in mind that even if another company does come in the results, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve trademarked it.

Check the national trademark search database for the country or countries you want to trade in and search for your name within your industry classification:

If you don’ t come across any trademark registrations for that same word in our classifications, then contact a trademark attorney to conduct a more thorough search using their local experts in those markets and advise you further. You don’t need to work through an attorney as you can register a trademark yourself, but working with one can save you a lot of time and increase your chances of getting your registration through the first time.

In conclusion, some advice

My advice to any company already operating and with ambitions to grow globally is make sure your brand name is trademarked and protected.

If it is not, you should

  • conduct your own search in any of the national IP or trademark offices’ databases (some of which are listed above, others can be found through a simple Google search);
  • hire a credible trademark attorney to either register your name or advise and guide you along the process of registering a new name.

Related: What You Need To Know About Naming A Start-up

If you MUST change your businesses name, then

  • hire a brand development agency for the creative process of developing the right name for you. (We didn’t do this but only because we had no idea how time consuming and difficult it would be. Although it worked out well in the end and we love our new name, it did take up a lot of time and perhaps more importantly “headspace.” I could have been focusing on other pressing things requiring that required this level of strategic thinking or creativity;
  • hire a change management agency or consultant to help with the communication and roll-out process of the new name to all stakeholders: staff, partners, customers, and the market. We managed well on our own, but if you don’t have the internal competency for this, or the time, rather outsource this very important and often neglected step;
  • and finally, just pray to whatever god(s) you believe in that whatever name you finally come with gets the green light from stakeholders and your trademark attorney. (Yes. Seriously.)

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